One of the most underrated regions in New Zealand, the Catlins are a hidden gem in the south-eastern corner of the South Island. Explore rugged coasts, thriving wildlife and landscapes that have been shaped by the elements… literally!
When I was planning my South Island road trip last year, the Catlins seemed to be left off almost all the itineraries that I found online. I guess that’s what happens when they’re bypassed by State Highway 1.
But we had a few days to get from Dunedin to Bluff (and then onto Stewart Island) so I knew we had to experience the moody Catlins for ourselves.
The Catlins is definitely lacking in tourist infrastructure but that’s because it’s lacking in tourists, which means you get the killer views, abundant wildlife and remote beaches all to yourself!
If you have an appetite for nature and adventure, there are some amazing things to do in the Catlins that I guarantee you’ll love.
Here are some of my top travel tips, suggestions of things to do and the best accommodation in the Catlins area.
How to get to the Catlins
The Catlins comprises of the bottom corner of the South Island, from Balclutha to Invercargill. The area stretches over both Otago and Southland.
The only way to get to the Catlins is by driving yourself, New Zealand’s public transport system is limited and the closest you could get by bus is to Balclutha.
Dunedin to the Catlins
Driving from Dunedin to Kaka Point (the northern-most popular stop in the Catlins) will take about an hour and 15 minutes (100km).
Queenstown to the Catlins
Driving from Queenstown direct to Kaka Point will take you just over three hours (257km).
Driving the Southern Scenic Route
The Catlins are a part of the Southern Scenic Route, a 600km+ road trip route that runs from Queenstown to Dunedin via some of New Zealand’s top highlights as well as unspoilt treasures.
Your first stop from Queenstown is Fiordland, home to the charming town of Te Anau which doubles as a gateway to the mighty Milford Sound. Next up is Western Southland, then Invercargill, then onto the Catlins before heading up to Dunedin.
When to visit the Catlins
You can visit the Catlins year-round and temperature-wise it’s quite mild (like much of New Zealand), but given that the coast is exposed to the elements, you need to be prepared for wild weather.
In summer expect the temperature to be around 15-25°C, and in winter the temp usually hovers around 8-13°C, although temperatures can reach up to 30°C in the hot months and as low as -5°C in winter.
The most important thing to know is that in the Catlins, things can change quickly. You might be having a swim on a hot day one minute and then be hit by a chilly wind coming straight off the ice thousands of kms away! And no, I’m not exaggerating.
Make sure you’ve got a warm jacket and scarf with you at any time of the year and you’ll be all good.
Things to do in the Catlins
You’re unlikely to see any big tour buses or recognisable tourism operators around this area but that doesn’t mean there’s not much to do. Whether you’re a keen hiker, have a knack for bird-spotting, love photography or prefer active adventures on the water, there are things to do in the Catlins for any traveller.
My absolute top pick for things to do in the Catlins is a kayak trip with Jared at Catlins Kayak & Adventure. He’s a local with loads of knowledge about the region’s ecology and history, and he’ll show you the iconic Nugget Point Lighthouse from the water.
We did the Sunrise Kayak which involved a horrendously early wake up, but it was well worth it when we saw a Hoiho (Yellow-Eyed Penguin) on his way out to sea for the day. They’re one of the rarest penguins in the world, with only an estimated 3,400 left. Seeing him on the rocks was a life highlight, and our day only got better with a tonne of fur seals sunbathing on the rocks right in front of us.
If you’re not an early riser, Catlins Kayak & Adventure also runs a two-hour daytime tour from 9am or 2pm where you might see fur seals, sea lions, albatross, little blue penguins and dolphins.
See the Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point is probably the most recognised spot in the Catlins, with a 9.5m lighthouse standing 76m above the rocky islands below.
There’s a big carpark near the track and it’s a 10 minute easy walk to the lighthouse, but bring a hat on a sunny day or coat on a cooler day as it’s fully exposed.
From the viewing platform you’ll be able to see seals, sea lions and seabirds.
Watch penguins come in at dusk
Curio Bay is a 25 minute drive from Kaka Point and is one of the best places in the South Island to spot yellow-eyed penguins coming in for the evening.
The penguin-spotting platforms are about a 6-7 minute walk from the carpark, and there’s signs with info about the penguins on the walk.
They return to land around dusk most nights although if there’s any disturbance on land they’ll stay out or go elsewhere. Make sure you read the DOC signage on the platforms to avoid disturbing the penguins.
Visit the Petrified Forest
Right next to the penguin viewing area is the Petrified Forest, a five minute walk from the carpark.
This place sounds like it’s straight out of Harry Potter, but it’s actually a Jurassic-period “forest” with tree fossils dating back 170 million years. These days it looks like rock pools, but if you look closely you’ll see that the ground is made up of tree stumps and fossilised branches.
Spot some sea lions
Surat Bay is a white sand beach about 25 minutes’ drive from Kaka Point, 5km from Owaka out to the coast. Here you’ll find a colony of sea lions!
You can park at the end of Newhaven Road and do a short walk to Surat Bay Beach, or drive to Cannibal Bay (20 mins from Kaka Point) and do the one hour return walk to Surat Bay and back.
Sea lions are territorial and can be aggressive if you get too close, so always keep a 20m distance as DOC recommends.
There are a number of waterfalls to add to your itinerary if you’re looking for things to do in the Catlins for nature lovers.
The mighty three-tier Purakaunui Falls are picture-perfect, set amongst thick native bush with sunlight trickling in through the trees. The walk is an easy 20 minutes return from the carpark, and they’re a 30 minute drive from Kaka Point.
From Purakaunui if you get back to the Southern Scenic Route, it’s just a five minute drive to your next waterfall, the Matai Falls. You get two waterfalls for the price of one here, a 20 min easy walk to the Matai Falls, then a steep five minute walk to see the Horseshoe Falls.
A further 30 minute drive south and slightly inland will take you to McLean Falls, 22m high with one major drop before cascading steps. This one’s also a 20 minute return walk.
See the Cathedral Caves
Hidden within the cliffs of Waipati Beach, the Cathedral Caves are two 30m high caves creating a 200m-long passage underneath the ground, caused by waves crashing against the sandstone for millions of years.
The Cathedral Caves are only accessible within an hour each side of low tide with a 30 minute downhill walk through native bush and along the beach, and entrance is $10 per adult and $2 per child (cash or EFTPOS) as the track crosses private land. They’re also closed from June to October.
Lost Gypsy Gallery
If you’re visiting the Catlins in summer, you have to stop at the eclectic Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowai, 40 minutes from Kaka Point along the Southern Scenic Route.
Created by Kiwi artist Blair Somerville, this “playground for adults” comprises of a house bus and a theatre full of automata, or mechanical toys.
Unfortunately we visited the area in winter (it’s closed from April to October) so didn’t make it inside but it has great reviews and also has an onsite coffee caravan if you need a good brew.
Slope Point is the southernmost point of the South Island, offering a cool photo opp with a bright yellow sign pointing towards the South Pole and the Equator.
This place is extremely exposed to the elements, so much so that near the carpark, you’ll see a bunch of trees on the neighbouring farmland that have grown on a crazy lean due to the Antarctic wind!
The Catlins accommodation
The Catlins accommodation range is minimal compared to most other tourist destinations in New Zealand, but there are some decent options to choose from for various budgets.
Camping | We stayed at the Newhaven Holiday Park by Surat Bay, which had basic but decent facilities, and was just a short walk to the sea lion colony. Another highly-rated option is Purakaunui Bay Campsite.
Luxury | There’s not really any super fancy options in the Catlins however about 30 minutes away from Balclutha on the way to Dunedin is a stunning place called Cascade Creek Retreat, an eco-friendly lodge set amongst a working farm. With two bedrooms, a huge lounge, roaring fire complete with marshmallows, two outdoor baths and forest views, this is by far the best accommodation available near the Catlins.
I hope this guide has helped you plan some things to do in the Catlins as well as find the best Catlins accommodation! If you think I’ve missed anything in this unspoilt corner of Te Waipounamu (the Maori name for the South Island) please let me know in the comments.
OTHER NEW ZEALAND GUIDES YOU MIGHT FIND HELPFUL:
- The Ultimate South Island Road Trip
- The Perfect Five Day Queenstown Itinerary
- 25 Epic Things to Do in Wanaka
- 15 of the Best Things to Do in Franz Josef Glacier
- Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound: Which is Better?
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Big thanks to Catlins Kayak & Adventure and Cascade Creek Retreat for hosting me on my Catlins trip. As always, all opinions are my own and are based on my personal experience.